Growing up as a child in the late ’60s I knew of a nursery rhyme that went, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names/words will never hurt me.”
Forty years later we know how very untrue those words are. Written before the advent of child psychology, it should be banished from children’s literature. Not only does it foster name-calling, it also encourages verbal abuse.
“Words Can Change Your Brain,” written by Loyola Marymount communication professor Mark Robert Waldman and Andrew Newberg, MD, director of research at Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, presents the argument that our minds are hardwired to respond favorably to certain types of speech and negatively to others.
Childhood is a highly impressionable time. Not only is the child’s brain molded by the experiences—joyful, sad, terrifying or memorable—but also, words play a huge role in helping children learn emotional control and increase their attention span.
I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a man whose mother, in his own words, “liked to yell all the time” and was very demanding as he was growing up. “Nothing was ever enough. I always had to step up a notch higher,” he said.
The man graduated from medical school with honors and was one of the best in his specialization. However, his emotional quotient (EQ) was the exact opposite of his IQ. Unfortunately, this showed in how he dealt with his wife and children.
In a Salon magazine interview, Newberg says that more often than not, what truly happens in most conversations is that people just keep talking at each other, not with each other. The lost art of listening only results in our overreacting or not really hearing what the other person is saying.
Long-winded arguments and conversations, he says, are not useful at all since the brain can accommodate only four things at a time. “If you go on and on for five or 10 minutes trying to argue a point, the person will only remember a very small part of that. We developed compassionate communication with the idea of having several goals, and one of them is to speak briefly, meaning that you speak one or two sentences, maybe 30 seconds worth or so, because that’s really what the human brain can take in and absorb.”
Smiling or mirroring another person’s gestures are components of what the neuroscientists call compassionate communication. “A very crucial element built into compassionate communication is that notion of creating similar kinds of responses to get into almost a ritualistic cadence with another individual. As you do that, you connect with them, and the research suggests that literally it’s not just a dialogue that’s going smoothly, but it’s the brains themselves which are connecting with each other,” Newberg explained.
The child who is perennially under stress, who grows up in a house where verbal abuse is an everyday occurrence, will most likely grow into an adult who is anxious most of his or her life.
“Those early childhood years are really essential for trying to create connections in the brain that foster more compassion, love and forgiveness and less fear and anxiety. What studies [conducted mostly with] animals but also [with some] humans show is that the more positive and enriching an environment you have, the more neural connections you make; the brain itself is just more highly connected and more able to be creative. When you are placed in an environment that is very deprived and very negative, the brain makes much fewer connections,” Newberg stressed.
How we talk to our children is just as important. While I was in a restaurant reading a book, my precious silence was broken by the very loud voice of a young lady.
She was yelling at her younger sibling, who replied in a gentle voice. A few minutes later, their mother, whom the younger child was clearly closer to, spoke in an equally soft tone. I thought perhaps the other daughter was hard of hearing, thus the loud voice. After a while, the father walked into the restaurant, his booming voice filling every nook and cranny of it. The older child hurriedly stood up to greet and hug her father as the mother and the other daughter toyed with their pasta dish.
In the library of my childhood home there was a poster that read: If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn; If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith; If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight. If a child lives with fairness, he learns to respect justice… If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate; If a child lives with shame, he learns to be guilty even if he is innocent. If a child lives with encouragement, he learns to have confidence; If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient; If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself. If a child lives with friendship and acceptance, he learns to find love in the world.
This holds true to this day. I think it is an excellent guide for us parents or caregivers of children. If you did not receive the affirmation to help you build not only a brilliant brain but also a compassionate heart, stop blaming your parents for the negativity. The human heart and spirit is resilient. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood and help nurture the next generation.